Wednesday 23 July 2014

Medicine or IP: which was the better choice for the small-scale practitioner?

I was chatting to a friend last night who is a medical practitioner in general practice, together with a couple of partners. He was lamenting the way his work has changed over the past thirty or so years since he qualified. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, doctors were still quite involved in the process of diagnosis and treatment of their patients. They had the benefit of both education and training, and the preponderant majority of consultations ended with the prescription of one of a relatively small number of well-known drugs, the taking of pulse and temperature and/or some reassuring words of comfort or admonition.

Nowadays the position is entirely different. The explosion of information concerning both conditions and their treatment has made it harder for general practitioners to be confident that they are up-to-date and accurate in their assessments. Advances in bioscience, gene technology, laser techniques, materials, cybernetics and other fields of human application have all led medicine beyond its original borders. Moreover, the information gap between doctor and the individual patient has been narrowed and sometimes eliminated by the advent of the internet and the accessibility of data that enables patients to practise self-diagnosis and suggest one or more forms of treatment or therapy. In many respects, the general practitioner has become little more than a forwarding agency, sending patients for ultrasound scans, X-rays, sophisticated tests of body fluids, physiotherapy or specialist diagnosis by a consultant. Apart from sending patients elsewhere, signing passport applications for the healthy and sick-notes for absentee from work, issuing repeat prescriptions and certifying death, there's not much else that he can do.

In contrast, the equivalent-sized IP practice has been vastly assisted by the new technologies over the same period and, while there have been many changes in law and practice over the past thirty or so years, they mainly make the IP practitioner's task easier. Harmonisation of IP rights, the creation of pan-European rights, the growth in popularity of the Patent Cooperation Treaty and the Madrid Agreement/Protocol -- and now even the Hague Agreement -- are of particular note in this regard. "Diagnosis" of legal problems has been greatly facilitated by the internet, where word-search within documents, measures for storage and retrieval, and the availability of both free and commercial searchable databases of relevant treaties, statutes, case law and administrative rulings have meant that, far from acting as little other than a forwarding agency, the small IP practice can handle more work, and handle it more efficiently, than would have been possible in the Bad Old Days. Sending difficult cases to counsel for an opinion is an option -- but one which is exercised only in case of clear need -- and the UK Intellectual Property Office offers its own non-binding, highly competitive, opinions service too.

The conclusion would thus seem to be that, if in the 1970s or 1980s you were faced with a choice of being a medical practitioner in general practice or an IP practitioner with a small firm, you'd be enjoying a higher degree of job satisfaction today if you picked the IP option.  Or am I imagining things ...?


  1. I know one medical practitioner who has become a patent attorney. He works in-house for TEVA.

    I don't think that there are many GPs that become patent attorneys or patent attorneys that become GPs. Doctors that do go into patent practice will almost certainly work for one of the large pharma companies.

    Richard (my doctor friend) kills pharmaceutical patents, thereby allowing TEVA to introduce generic equivalents. I suspect he gets his job satisfaction by cutting the price of treatment for millions of patients. He certainly has more impact than many doctors. He loses out on the hands on experience of treating patients though. Then again, he only kills patents not patients.

    I suspect that in more mercenary moments Richard will acknowledge that the switch was personally profitable and this may even have been a motivation.

    I know that as principle of a small IP firm, I am doing much better than junior partners or associates in large IP practices. I suspect that I get more job satisfaction as well.

    I don't think I'd like to be the senior partner of a large firm. I like to work not to delegate and I don't enjoy managing people, nor am I good at it.

    I don't think the issue is whether a patent attorney is happier than a doctor. The issue is where the individual feels happier and more fulfilled. At least part of this is related to having cash for extra-curricular activities and holidays for the kids, expensive restaurants, theatre tickets and other luxuries. I suspect that competent patent attorneys working in large firms can afford those things.

    There are some that actually enjoy accumulating wealth. I suspect that those sad individuals will never be happy.

  2. Having a wife who is a GP partner, and both of us entering our professions in the noughties, there are certainly positives to both professions, as well as negatives.

    You are probably right that GP's are becoming more facilitators and managers of services - that is certainly what the GP commissioning reforms put in place by the coalition have brought to the fore. Nevertheless, my wife still makes at least 30-40 clinical decisions a day, based on 10 minutes of information. The key for the GP is not missing the warning signs in amongst the chaff.

    The advantages for a GP are that a 4 day week is classed as full time, she has a few hours in the middle of the day between surgeries to catch up on paperwork or even head home, the pay is good, albeit frozen and squeezed in the last few years and she can generally leave the work at work - no emails to check on holiday! She is also a people person, so (normally) enjoys the public interaction and explaining options and diagnoses to patients, including the results and consequences of hospital scans etc. (this is probably how the role of a GP has changed most - rather than pure diagnosis).
    Conversely, I am happy in my associate post in patent attorney private practice. I enjoy the variety of work, although perhaps not the piles of cases!

    If faced with the choice in the 70's/80's, you are probably right that job satisfaction has declined in GP and so is higher in IP (although your pension may not be) .

    From our perspective, starting later, we would probably not change or swap. However, given another 10 years, the answers are likely to change!

  3. If I was a medical doctor tuned patent attorney I would prefer to work for a research based pharmaceutical company that invents new medicines for the benefit of patients. Still, I must have a better grasp of the realities of the pharmaceutical industry than that imparted on the Teva attorney by his friend.

    If I worked for Teva I would enjoy 'killing' patents for the intellectual challenge and because it furthered my employer's commercial interests. Patients would be an irrelevance to me.

  4. I see the good doctor above works in Israel so no bias in his opinion on pharmaceutical patents.

  5. Whilst I would not wish kill innovation, I'm pleased to see that Richard is killing patents rather than patients - which was my first reading!

  6. I think this is comparing apples and oranges. A better comparison might be medical GPs and high street solicitors, where the GPs may be better off today, but both have been put through the wringer by Government policies.

    Or compare a consumer-facing medical speciality with IP practice. I don't know what that might be - dentistry perhaps or a family planning clinic? I am told by my accountant that many dentists are rich; whether they have more job satisfaction than GPs, I wouldn't know.

  7. I think both professions can accommodate people who are passionate, want to change the world and make a difference. I think both professions can also do with a lot of reforming. Patent attorneys could care a lot more about using their skills to help companies. Doctors can do a lot more to make the health service better.